On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the Greensboro City Council cleared up some issues that had been raised in closed session at its Oct. 18 meeting about the internal police investigation of former Greensboro Police Officer Travis Cole.
The council voted 5 to 3 to allow councilmembers to view the internal police investigation of the arrest of Dejuan Yourse by Cole. The charges against Yourse were dropped and Cole was found to have violated several police policies, including one on the use of force. Councilmembers Justin Outling, Tony Wilkins and Marikay Abuzuaiter voted against the motion. Councilmember Mike Barber was absent.
On Oct. 18 in closed session, the City Council had voted not to allow city councilmembers to see that report. Councilmember Sharon Hightower has been requesting to view the records since the body-worn cam video of the incident was released on Sept. 20. A councilmember has no legal right to view personnel records. It takes a vote of the majority of the City Council for the records to be viewed by a councilmember, and then they are available to all councilmembers.
The City Council also voted 8 to 0 to release the minutes and the audio of the portion of the closed session where the City Council discussed whether or not to grant Hightower’s request to see the investigative report and then voted not to allow it.
At the Oct. 18 meeting, when people in the audience were shouting at Mayor Nancy Vaughan asking what the vote had been in closed session, she responded by announcing what the closed session vote had been. In that vote, Councilmembers Outling, Wilkins, Abuzuaiter, Barber and Nancy Hoffmann voted not to allow Hightower to view the report.
The way the vote on the same motion came about was that on Tuesday, Hoffmann made a motion to reconsider the vote that was taken in closed session. Once the motion to reconsider the vote passed, Hoffmann changed her vote on releasing the records and the motion passed by the 5 to 3 margin. Sometime in the next two weeks the council will either meet in closed session to view the police report or councilmembers may view the report individually. City Attorney Tom Carruthers said he would prefer a closed session where all the questions from councilmembers could be answered at one time.
According to the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, the City Council should not have been discussing whether or not to release the police records in closed session. Discussing releasing records is not one of the exceptions that allows the City Council to exclude the public from their meeting. If there were any doubt about it, the fact that the City Council on Tuesday night had the same matter before it in open session is pretty substantial evidence.
Vaughan said, “It was an investigative file and quite frankly should not have been discussed back there.”
Hightower said, “I could have made the same request right out here.” She said, “I did it as a courtesy. It was my courtesy to my fellow councilmembers.”
The Open Meetings Law is clear that the City Council cannot go into closed session for one stated purpose and then talk about whatever they want, whether it is as a courtesy or not.
When Wilkins requested to see the personnel file of former Greensboro Police Chief David Wray, he repeatedly made the request in open session and no one ever said that he had to discuss it in closed session.
Carruthers said that the closed session was “proper.”
Outling was upset on Oct. 18 when Vaughan announced the closed session vote, and Tuesday said about that disclosure, “Something happened that should not have happened. To suggest otherwise is totally disingenuous.”
Outling has said that there were only two legal reasons they could be discussing releasing the records in closed session. One was to prevent the disclosure of personnel records and the other was attorney-client privilege.
It doesn’t appear that either category fits. The City Council was not discussing confidential personnel records, but whether the council wanted to view the records or not. In the past these discussions have taken place in open session, as it did on Tuesday night. From councilmembers’ description of the loud discussion that followed Hightower’s courteous request, it’s hard to imagine how councilmembers yelling at each other falls under the exception that allows the council to go into closed session to consult with their attorney.
The evidence is strong that the City Council gives some legal reason for going into closed session and then they go back behind closed doors and discuss whatever they want.